Gotham grit meets Euro flair
By Ryan Chatelain and David Freedlander
Bicycles streaming in lanes once reserved for cars. Sidewalk seating carved into major traffic thoroughfares, perfect for enjoying a cappuccino. Families frolicking along the waterfront.
(Photo by Jefferson Siegel)
It may sound like Europe, but its actually the new New York City, a dramatic and pristine departure from the grit that defined city streets for decades. For the past seven years, the Bloomberg administration has been bringing its vision for public spaces to life, one that will profoundly shape the way people live and move about the city.
I really believe you can measure the health of a city by the vitality of its streets and public spaces, said Amanda Burden, the citys planning commissioner. In the end, thats what draws people to a city. Thats what makes people fall in love with a city.
Burden admits she has been inspired by life across the pond. Shes worked to adopt Copenhagens emphasis on public spaces, Paris penchant for sidewalk cafes and Barcelonas renewed commitment to its waterfronts. Access to New Yorks shorelines was largely limited by port activity, which declined throughout the 1900s.The Bloomberg administration is also working to double bicycle transportation by 2015. A bike-sharing program in Manhattan was launched for five days last July, and the city is aiming to add 1,000 bike racks each year.
And if other recent additions to New Yorks streetscape seem familiar namely bus shelters, shiny newsstands and high-tech public toilets thats because the city hired a Spanish design company, Cemusa, to install street furniture. Cemusa also has contracts in dozens of European cities, including Madrid, Spain; Lisbon, Portugal; and Milan, Italy.
In addition, the city is converting an abandoned elevated railroad on the West Side into the High Line park, a project reminiscent of Paris Promenade PlantÃ©e.
But opinion is divided over whether this new Big Apple is necessarily a good thing.
There is a kind of mono-cultural aesthetic that everything is being made too coordinated and the style is this kind of glass and chrome where everything looks like a condo, said Jeremiah Moss, who runs the blog Jeremiahs Vanishing New York.
Its nice to have a place to sit, but it feels too antithetical to what a city is supposed to be, which is chaotic and organic and wild and hard to tame.
Some New Yorkers have looked at the changes with a skeptical eye.
Those seats in the middle and with all the planters people are going to get run over, said John Burke, 50, an elevator mechanic who works in the city as he looked at the Broadway Esplanade near 34th Street. Ill bet they take them out as soon as someone gets run over.
Burden maintains that the Bloomberg administration is adamant about protecting the citys character, relying on mixed-use zoning to preserve neighborhoods small-town texture.
Rob Pirani, director of environmental programs at the Regional Plan Association, an independent planning group, said he applauds Bloombergs efforts to create a more pedestrian-friendly city, especially along its waterfronts.
Urban development is like buying a pair of shoes, he said. Most urban redevelopment fits great, feels right, after its been worn a little bit. I think thats certainly true in New York City, where as time goes by, places develop in subtle but important ways that make them part of neighborhood.